Lobster mushrooms and I first became acquainted when I had some for lunch at a friend's home. The son of a college friend had brought some lobster mushrooms he had foraged earlier that morning near Bellingham. I had never heard of them, but was enchanted with their bright, orange-red color - the color of a lobster shell. He prepared them by simply cutting them into pieces and sautéing them in butter. The taste and scent intrigued me further, a distinctive flavor with shellfish overtones.
In short, they were a surprising revelation, and I've remembered them fondly since then.
For that reason I was excited when I saw lobster mushrooms being offered recently at the Cascadia Mushrooms stand at the Bellingham Farmers Market. We were there mostly to pick up 20 pounds of fresh Roma tomatoes from Terra Verde for canning, but we stretched our budget a little to tuck some of the lobster 'shrooms into our bag.
Lobster mushrooms are an oddity, even in the odd and fascinating world of mushrooms. For one thing, they are actually two different organisms. One is a mushroom and the other is a mold.
When I first learned that, I admit I was a little put off, thinking of the common molds I've seen - and carefully not eaten - on bread, old vegetables, etc. I researched a little deeper and discovered there are actually several kinds of mold. Some are bacteria, such as those found on bread, but the mold of the lobster mushroom is a type of fungi, just like mushrooms themselves.
Lobster mushrooms (Hypomyces lactifluorum) are a parasitic mold covering its host mushroom, which is usually a Russula or Lactarius variety. The mold forms a thin, bright orange layer over the white mushroom underneath. They are usually found in pine or hemlock woods, where their hosts are common.
Since the flavor of lobster mushrooms is formed by an interaction of the mold and its host, I suspect the name has more to do with the color than the taste. For example, when the host is Lactarius piperatus, the lobster mushroom will typically have a peppery flavor rather than the milder shellfish taste I experienced.
There are a few reports of the mold parasitizing a poisonous mushroom, and so presumably becoming poisonous itself. Most scholarly sources, though, attribute this to the difficulty of identifying the host mushroom, and believe the mold is very selective for the Russula or Lactarius host species. There are no known poisonous varieties in those two genera. Also, no fatalities have ever been reported from eating lobster mushrooms. As a result, lobster mushrooms are considered safe to eat. A few people have reported allergies to the mold, however. As with all mushrooms, if you haven't eaten them before, try a small quantity first to check for sensitivity.
Lobster mushrooms have a meaty texture, even more than portobellas. For that reason they are often used by vegetarians in recipes instead of meat. People also use lobster mushrooms to dye fibers for knitting or weaving.
If you're interested in learning more about mushrooms and how to identify, collect and eat them safely, I recommend contacting the Northwest Mushroomers Association. Call Jack Waytz at 360-303-4079 or Margaret Dilly at 360-675-8756 or see their website, northwestmushroomers.org.
Association members will hold their annual Wild Mushroom Show at Bloedel Donovan Park from noon to 5 p.m. Sunday, Oct 14. If you're interested in learning about mushrooms and you've never attended the event before, it's an enormous extravaganza of hundreds of varieties of mushroom from our area. Most are picked within a day or two of the show so you can see what they look like in the wild.
It's a stunning amount of work and a tribute to the passion people feel for these fascinating fungi. Lots of experts will be on hand to answer questions and share information, and you can bring mushrooms from your own backyard to be identified, if you like.
(They probably won't tell you where to find their favorite patch of morels, though they do have spring and fall forays for their members.) Admission to the show is $5 for adults, $3 for students, and free for kids under 12. For more information about the show, call 360-303-4079.
Also, don't forget the Annual Fall Fruit Festival, Oct. 6-7, at Cloud Mountain Farm Center, 6906 Goodwin Road, near Everson. Just as the Wild Mushroom Show is a fungi extravaganza, the Fall Fruit Festival is a fruit extravaganza, with a pumpkin patch, live music, activities for kids and a Mallards Ice Cream booth as added attractions. See driving directions on their website, cloudmountainfarmcenter.org.
CREAMY LOBSTER MUSHROOM SAUCE
2 tablespoons butter (homemade with cream from Fresh Breeze Organic Dairy, Lynden)
1/4 cup shallots or onions, finely chopped (Full Bloom Farm, Lummi Island)
1 clove garlic, minced (Boxx Berry Farm, Ferndale)
1 large lobster mushroom (Cascadia Mushrooms, Bellingham)
1/4 cup half-and-half (Twin Brooks Creamery, Lynden)
Clean the mushroom by first removing the tough end of the stem (if there is one). Gently brush the smooth underside areas with a damp brush to remove dirt. On the rougher top, carefully use a sharp knife to remove dirt and cut away any tough blemishes. Take your time. Once it's well cleaned, chop into 1/2- to 1-inch cubes, or 1/2-inch slices.
Melt the butter in a skillet. Add shallots or onions and sauté until golden (about three minutes). Add minced garlic and sauté another minute or so.
Most of the butter should have been absorbed or evaporated, so the pan will be barely oiled. Add the lobster mushrooms pieces and cook until they have given up their liquid and browned a little.
Lower the heat and add the half-and-half. Stir until warmed. Salt to taste.
Serve immediately as a side, or on top of pasta or meat.
You'll find Whatcom County foods at these stores and farms. Many outlets have seasonal hours. We recommend you call or check websites for current hours.
Acme Farms + Kitchen
Appel Farms Cheese Shoppe, 6605 Northwest Road, Ferndale; 360-384-4996; appel-farms.com
Artisan Wine Gallery, 2072 Granger Way, Lummi Island; 360-758-2959; artisanwineclub.com
Bellingham Farmers Market, Railroad at Chestnut; 360-647-2060; bellinghamfarmers.org
Boxx Berry Farm Store and u-pick, 6211 Northwest Road, Ferndale; 360-380-2699; boxxberryfarm.com
Cloud Mountain Farm Nursery, 6906 Goodwin Road, Everson; 360-966-5859; cloudmountainfarm.com
Community Food Cooperative, 1220 N. Forest St. and 315 Westerly Road, Bellingham; 360-734-8158; communityfood.coop
Everybody's Store, 5465 Potter Road, Deming; 360-592-2297; everybodys.com
Ferndale Public Market, Centennial Riverwalk, Ferndale; 360-410-7747; ferndalepublicmarket.org
Grace Harbor Farms, 2347 Birch Bay Lynden Road, Custer; 360-366-4151; graceharborfarms.com
Green Barn, 8858 Guide Meridian, Lynden; 360-354-1008
Hopewell Farm, 3072 Massey Road, Everson; 360-927-8433
Lynden Farmers Market, 514 Liberty St., Lynden, fiveloavesfarm.blogspot.com
Pleasant Valley Dairy, 6804 Kickerville Road, Ferndale; 360-366-5398; facebook.com/pages/Pleasant-Valley-Dairy/161872142667
Red Barn Lavender Farm (egg CSA), 3106 Thornton Road, Ferndale; 360-393-7057
Small's Gardens, 6451 Northwest Road, Ferndale; 360-384-4637
The Islander, 2106 S. Nugent Road, Lummi Island; 360-758-2190; islandergrocery.com
The Markets LLC, 3125 Old Fairhaven Parkway and 1030 Lakeway, Bellingham; 8135 Birch Bay Square St., Blaine; 360-714-9797; themarketsllc.com
Terra Organica, 1530 Cornwall Ave., Bellingham; 360-715-8020; terra-organica.com
Reach NANCY GING at 360-758-2529 or firstname.lastname@example.org. To follow her day- to-day locavore activities, "like" Whatcom Locavore on Facebook (facebook.com/whatcomlocavore) and "follow" on Twitter, @WhatcomLocavore. For locavore menus, recipes, and more resources, read her blog at at whatcomlocavore.com.